Hype, hoopla mark airline's BWI debut


September 16, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

CLEVELAND -- Maybe it beat collecting quarters in the fast lane of the Ohio Turnpike.

So when Nina Burmeister heard about Southwest Airlines' presidential look-alike contest at Hopkins International Airport yesterday, she decided to show up, hoping to win a free trip to Baltimore.

"I need excitement in my life," explained Ms. Burmeister, a 39-year-old toll collector for the Ohio Turnpike Authority.

She got just that by posing as Hillary Rodham Clinton. On board Southwest's gold and burnt-orange Boeing 737, Ms. Burmeister joined other winners -- including a Bill Clinton look-alike, four Richard M. Nixons, and one very short George Bush -- for a free trip to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and a tour of Washington.

"We're using the presidential theme to sell Baltimore as a way to get to D.C.," said Dave Ridley, director of marketing and sales for the Dallas-based airline, which made its East Coast debut at BWI yesterday.

Even for an airline that has elevated hoopla to an art form, Southwest pushed the limits of hype yesterday as it launched its 11 daily flights to Cleveland and Chicago.

At Cleveland's Hopkins International, the first batch of Baltimore passengers -- cashing in on one-way fares as low as $19 -- brushed past life-size cutouts of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton and Tipper and Al Gore.

Red, white and blue balloons formed a canopy over the lounge outside the airline's four gates. And photographs of Southwest President Herbert D. Kelleher in various wacky poses adorned the walls.

In Baltimore, arriving Cleveland passengers were greeted by the Phillips Restaurant ragtime band, the Oriole Bird and state dignitaries who created an archway with baseball bats. Throughout the BWI terminal, Southwest ticket agents wore hats topped with inflated, vinyl airplanes.

Midmorning, Southwest flew a group of 49 children (as in $49 one-way, unrestricted fare) from Linthicum Elementary School to Cleveland to visit the city's Metroparks Zoo.

If Cleveland's experience with Southwest is any indication, passenger traffic at BWI should skyrocket because of the new airline. Since the airline began service in Cleveland in February 1992, traffic has risen by nearly 1 million passengers, with some coming from as far away as Pittsburgh.

Southwest is expected to draw passengers to BWI from as far away as Philadelphia and to give the underused airport a significant boost in its competition with Dulles International and National airports outside Washington.

Judging from yesterday's passenger list, that could happen.

Wendy Kelly drove for an hour to Baltimore from her Vienna, Va., home Tuesday night and stayed with a friend so she could catch the 6:10 a.m. Southwest flight to Cleveland.

"I haven't been to BWI for 10 years," said Ms. Kelly, who normally flies out of Dulles, 15 minutes from her home. "But these fares were just too good."

The key to Southwest's success is low fares. Already, it has driven down prices among major competitors at BWI. But low operating costs -- produced by quick turnarounds, efficient use of crews and no frills -- are what make such fares possible.

On the half-empty, early morning Baltimore-to-Cleveland flight yesterday, the Boeing 737 taxied from the gate on time. On board, passengers got coffee and orange juice; Southwest rarely serves meals.

While none of the attendants surprised passengers by jumping out of the overhead compartments (as they have on occasion), the crew maintained its reputation as fun-loving.

The crew played games with the passengers and rewarded winners with $25 discount coupons.

It's that kind of fun that has made Southwest a longtime friend of Roberta and Sanford Wasserstrom of Cleveland. Already, they've purchased three sets of Southwest tickets to visit their children and six grandchildren in the Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia area before Jan. 1.

Using the airline's "friends fly free" program, round-trip tickets for two cost just under $100, they said.

"At that price, we can afford to drop in for dinner," said Ms. Wasserstrom. "And this airline is so much fun."

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